Three Lessons Higher Ed Web Communicators Can Learn from NPR’s Andy Carvin

Andy Carvin

'Curator of the Revolution'

Amid the political upheaval in the Middle East over the past several weeks, a dependable source of information has been Andy Carvin (@acarvin), NPR’s senior social media strategist. But he’s not reporting out of Tripoli or Cairo. Rather, he’s tweeting from his Maryland home, often while his kids watch TV in the background and cats vie for attention at his feet.

Carvin, whom one Metafilter thread dubbed “Curator of the Revolution,” has been tweeting updates from sources who are on the ground in the various countries—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere—that have seen uprisings as of late. In doing so, he’s become something of a poster child for content curation.

The Atlantic hailed Carvin as an example of how curation is the new journalism. Carvin told the magazine, “Curation itself isn’t new; it’s just the way that some of us are doing it online that’s fairly new. The tools have evolved, but the goal of capturing a story and turning people’s attention to it isn’t.”

Content curation has been a hot topic of interest for me, and I spoke about it at HighEdWeb, Stamats and the recent eduGuru Summit. With Carvin serving as such a stellar example of the practice, I wanted to pull out some lessons that we in higher ed can take away from his journalistic enterprise: how content impacts branding and fundraising; the value of innovation and experimentation; and the importance of relationships and trust.

Content, branding and fundraising

How far are we pushing the use of our brand… and high-value content to drive donations?

Some of Carvin’s followers approached him and wanted to know how to financially support his tweeting, since the content was of high value to them. With the #gave4andy hashtag that Carvin started, urging people to donate to their local NPR affiliate, some say Carvin has found the future of fundraising.

In higher ed, fundraising is naturally a top concern. So how far are we pushing the use of our brand—not just university brand, but personal brand (Carvin tweets as @acarvin, not @NPR)—and high-value content to drive donations?

Another aspect of the phenomenon is how it capitalizes on the real-time web. Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab wrote:

The tweet, the tag, and the response combine to form an intriguing example of what can happen when you harness the power of a particular event, and a particular moment—and translate that energy to financial support.

In higher ed, we have powerful moments on our calendar every year that are relevant to both the people in attendance and those elsewhere. Can we create content around them that is strong enough to light a fire under our networks to share the message—and offer their support?

Did Carvin ruffle NPR management’s feathers by his ad hoc donation tweet? Not in the least. Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager of digital media, told Nieman Journalism Lab, “It’s exactly the kind of initiative that we try to encourage people to take — to be nimble and smart and take what I’d classify as ‘prudent risks.’”

Innovation and experimentation

Often, the best things come from experimentation and taking those prudent risks. “I see curation as a serious form of narrative – one that we’re just beginning to recognize as something or another,” Carvin told Zuckerman, and his actions are going to significantly inform how curation evolves and is recognized going forward. And quite frankly, that makes NPR looks good. NPR sowed the seeds for that by fostering a culture of, to echo Wilson again, prudent risk-taking.

“NPR has always been very encouraging with me to try new platforms, new methods of journalism, and follow the story wherever it takes me,” Carvin told Ethan Zuckerman. “We don’t necessarily have official 20% time like Google does, but in practice I try to make it work that way.”

A little experimentation may energize not only your on-brand content, but your own professional juices.

Are you in a content rut? Have you been writing the same kinds of stories and producing the same kinds of videos for years? Find a new spin, or take cues from how mainstream media folks like Carvin are doing it. A little experimentation may energize not only your on-brand content, but your own professional juices.

Also, innovation isn’t tied to fancy, expensive tools. Carvin is using nothing more sophisticated than Tweetdeck to push out his Twitter curation. While Carvin used Storify to cover the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, he told Ethan Zuckerman that the events in Egypt quickly overwhelmed his ability to use Storify to cover them. Even still, Storify is a free (though still beta) tool. He doesn’t have a staff or a fancy scripting or a custom portal. It’s just a man and Twitter. And some cats.

An example from the other side of the coin? Boston.com’s wildly successful Big Picture feature was run by Alan Taylor—who did not work on the Globe’s photo desk, but rather was a web developer. “Part of the agreement to let me run the Big Picture was that I kept doing the other web development that needed to be done,” he blogged on Jan. 18 in announcing his move to The Atlantic. “I agreed to that arrangement, and tried my best to make it work, but in the end, it was often unworkable—one or the other job would suffer when there were crunch times.”

Since Boston.com didn’t recognize what they had and work to accommodate it, they lost what had become a crown jewel in their online portfolio. Are you a manager with a restless yet creative content producer? Given them a corner to play and take those prudent risks and see what comes out of it. If amazing things result, adjust accordingly.

Networks, relationships and trust

Carvin’s Twitter curation draws from multiple sources around the world. As Carvin explained in a Feb. 21 interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, he didn’t start blind; he began with existing contacts in Egypt and Tunisia and branched out from there, building relationships with new sources along the way.

The foundation of the growth of Carvin’s network—and thus, the value of his curation—was trust, which is essential for content curation. “As time goes by, you get a sense of who they trust as well,” he told All Things Considered. “Who are they talking to? Who are they re-tweeting?” Carvin even used his network to help debunk rumors being reported by major media organizations.

How can we tap our networks to supplement and enhance our own content? How can we gain the trust that fosters future collaboration and information sharing?

In higher ed, we have similar kinds of networks – communications folks in other schools or departments, social media managers across the institution, the video production group. How can we tap our networks to supplement and enhance our own content? How can we gain the trust that fosters future collaboration and information sharing?

Also, as curator, Carvin has had to pull multiple threads of information together, add context and ensure that what he communicates lives up to the trust his readers have put in him. In Egypt and Libya, with so much unconfirmed information swirling around, this is particularly critical. As he told All Things Considered, “You really have to take some of it with a grain of salt, but at the same time realize they’re doing their best. They’re not professional journalists. They’re just trying to get information out as quickly as possible.”

If you’re working with sources who may not be professional communicators but are trying their best to publish and share information, rather than scoff or roll your eyes, try to understand where they’re coming from. In higher ed, we may be in the position to reach out and help improve their process. And that helps everybody.

Photo by Andy Carvin / Twitter

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

Comments

  1. Excellent post, and great points about the value of curation as a tool for journalism and storytelling. Andy Carvin’s personal brand has benefited NPR, and in the same way we should consider how our own personal brands – or our online personae – can be leveraged to help our institutions.

    I also love Wilson’s “prudent risks” quip. The “prudent” qualifier might carry weight among higher ed administrators.

    • Thanks, Andy! I think the brand question is particularly interesting — we push alumni and faculty brands like it was going out of style, but what about our personal brands as communicators and curators? Do those have value?

      And I agree re: prudent risks. Smart, iterative innovation! It’s the way of the future :-)

  2. Thanks Georgy for this very interesting article.

    (I’m from Scoop.it, a content curation tool). Most of our users express themselves on topics they feel passionate about (they are like “editors” of themed magazines); some use scoop.it to report an event. I post this comment because one of our users happens to curate on the revolutions in the Arab world.

    I believe, as you do, in “curation as a serious form of narrative”. And for all of us, journalists or not, individuals and companies. Curation tools help in discovering, filtering, editing and sharing. But curation remains an act of personal expression, better performed by committed, motivated and topic-savvy people. Which makes it exciting and enriching :)

    • Thanks, Marc. I think one of the most interesting things about effective curation is how it enables anyone who is, as you aptly put it, “committed, motivated and topic-savvy” to become a leader in a given subject area. From my higher ed brand vantage point, I’m very interested to see how curation manifests in our online communications.

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